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Italy go into World Cup play-offs after Northern Ireland draw as Swiss qualify | World Cup 2022 qualifiers


Italy must go into the World Cup qualifying play-offs after being held to a goalless draw by a brilliant Northern Ireland side at Windsor Park.

In the best performance of the Ian Baraclough era, Northern Ireland frustrated their illustrious visitors for 90 minutes – with Conor Washington unable to take a last-minute chance to snatch a famous victory.

With Switzerland beating Bulgaria 4-0 to top Group C, Italy – who failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup after going into the play-offs – must settle for second place while Northern Ireland made sure of third.

There were superb performances across the pitch from Northern Ireland, though the best of them came from Jonny Evans. The Leicester centre-back was imperious at the heart of defence, his performances this week showing what Northern Ireland were missing as he sat out the crunch part of the qualifying campaign through injury.

Stuart Dallas was fit to start having missed training on Sunday but Paddy McNair, who had pulled up with a hamstring problem in the 1-0 win against Lithuania on Friday, was replaced in defence by Tom Flanagan.

Baraclough had emphasised the need to start players getting regular club football against Lithuania but three days later restored Jamal Lewis, who has played only six minutes of Premier League football at Newcastle this season, to his side ahead of Shane Ferguson.

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Uefa World Cup qualifying play-offs

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1. There are three qualifying spots at Qatar 2022, to be played for by 12 teams: 10 group runners-up plus the two highest ranked winners of Nations League groups that have not qualified otherwise. Portugal, Italy, Poland, Scotland, Russia, Sweden and North Macedonia have qualified as runners-up. 

Either Wales or the Czech Republic will be runners-up in Group E, but whoever is not will get a spot via the Nations League route. Austria are guaranteed a spot via the Nations League route. 

2. The six group runners-up with the best records, excluding games against the bottom side in six-team groups, will be seeded. 

Portugal, Scotland, Italy and Russia will be seeded. Wales, who need to draw with Belgium to be sure of being runners-up, would be seeded if they were to win, though a draw would suffice unless Turkey win by four goals in Montenegro.

3. The seeded teams will play at home in the one-off play-off semi-finals, on 24-25 March. The draw on 26 November will determine which semi-finals will provide the home team in the one-off finals, on 28-29 March.

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Gavin Whyte also came in, with both selections showing Baraclough was looking for pace with which to hit Italy on the break as his side defended deeply, his preferred 3-5-2 formation in reality a 5-3-2.

For 90 minutes it worked as a flat Italy only occasionally threatened. There was one early scare when Lorenzo Insigne’s lovely curling ball caught out Lewis and allowed Giovanni Di Lorenzo to get through on goal. The Napoli full-back has scored in the past two World Cup qualifiers but his shot was comfortably saved by Bailey Peacock-Farrell.

For 20 minutes Italy could not get another sight of goal. Insigne shot straight at Peacock-Farrell just before the half-hour before Federico Chiesa failed to get enough power on a low shot from a tight angle. Flanagan had look composed but one wayward pass was almost punished in the 37th minute as Domenico Berardi played in Insigne, but Craig Cathcart did enough to put him off.

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Switzerland sink Bulgaria to seal World Cup spot

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Switzerland have qualified for the World Cup for the fifth time in a row after their 4-0 home win over Bulgaria, coupled with Italy’s goalless draw against Northern Ireland, saw them finish top of Group C.

The hosts kicked off in Lucerne knowing they would qualify on goal difference if they could out-score Italy by two or more. Both games were goalless at half-time but Noah Okafor’s header broke the deadlock soon after the restart. 

Ruben Vargas got a second for the Swiss just before the hour mark, and the hosts had two subsequent goals ruled out by VAR. Cedric Itten’s header in the 72nd minute did stand, meaning Italy had to score twice in Belfast. In the end, victory alone was enough for Switzerland, who added a fourth in stoppage time through Remo Freuler.

Poland finished second in Group I but missed the chance to secure a seeded play-off place after a 2-1 home defeat to Hungary. Albania edged to a 1-0 home win over Andorra while in Group F, Israel beat the Faroes 3-2 and Austria eased to a 4-1 home win over Moldova. 

Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/AFP

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Moments later Chiesa cut in from the left to bring a great save from Peacock-Farrell, who was not to know the flag was up. Insigne flashed a shot just wide three minutes into the second half, but Northern Ireland responded with their best moment of the match to that point, patiently working space for Whyte to send in a deep cross which Lewis pulled back for George Saville, who forced a diving save from Gianluigi Donnarumma.

With news coming through from Lucerne that Switzerland were leading, Italy sought to ramp up the pressure.

Berardi’s low free-kick was held at the near post by Peacock-Farrell, Chiesa bent a shot narrowly the wrong side of the post before Peacock-Farrell again denied Di Lorenzo. But they could not find a way through. At the other end Washington, on as a substitute, broke the offside trap and ran at goal, but his low shot was deflected behind.

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Washington then sparked another break, with Lewis pulling the ball back for Dallas, but he could not find the target from the edge of the area.

The biggest twist almost came in the last minute of the 90. Donnarumma raced off his line but Washington beat him to the ball, powering towards goal, but he scuffed his shot and Leonardo Bonucci was able to block it on the line. Victory was not to be, but Windsor Park nevertheless greeted the final whistle with an almighty roar on a superb night.



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